“Why are you always so nervous?” she asks.
Maybe it’s because I just saw her yesterday, shiny and topless, snaked around a pole, and now she’s fully clothed shucking apples off trees.
Her name is “Tenderfoot,” and I met her only a couple of days ago dancing at a strip club. She’s a golden brunette, twenty years old, with both arms sleeved in ink. And just yesterday we agreed to go apple picking on what’s turned out to be a prodigiously beautiful day with deep azure skies.
“What’s your article about?” she asks, pulling another apple off the branch.
“When I find out I’ll let you know,” I reply, as she drops another Gala into an already overfilled basket, which she has asked me to hold for her.
“Aren’t you a writer?”
“So shouldn’t you know what your article is about?”
I just look at her. The basket is heavy and it was her idea to take this trip. I suggested we go to a diner in order to separate her from her element—so we could chat, candidly. But she thought since we’re both Long Islanders it’d be more “seasonable to pluck fruit instead.”
She grabs another apple. I think we have enough but I don’t say so.
And yesterday when Tenderfoot requested to bring someone along for this apple trip, I wasn’t anticipating it to be her four-year-old daughter. I imagined a six-foot-five security guard, someone who’d have no problem bouncing nickels off his biceps. So as a precaution, of course, I decided to invite my friend Vince (photographer) and this lawyer I know, who we’ll call “Lawyer,” to preserve anonymity. His wife wouldn’t be too pleased; they just married last year.
Also, to clarify, Tenderfoot’s real name isn’t “Tenderfoot,” as you could imagine, but apparently (I asked her why she’s called this) she’s “both adept and tender with her feet.”
“Then why don’t you call yourself Tenderfeet?”
She doesn’t answer me.
“You know my name isn’t Bruce Davis either? I made it up,” I say, and maybe a little too in earnest.
“I made it up so my wife wouldn’t know that I was picking apples and writing articles about strippers. Not that she wouldn’t understand; it’s just better this way.”
We talk about the long hours, the family-like atmosphere, the nice clothes, the bruises and back problems, the “asshole men” and the occasional groping, “it can be nasty,” and yet the constant gratifying attention: “It feels good to be told you look good.”
At this point it’s like talking to an old friend. And I expect as our conversation proceeds that she’ll pull back the curtain on the entire adult entertainment industry. Soon I’ll have the gritty details that everyone wants, something that’ll expose and deconstruct the entire mythology of dancing naked women in this country. And hopefully, I’ll be able to elucidate what the stripper is like outside of her strip-world, her comfort zone. I also imagine along the way revealing my own push-pull obsession with these fringier-types, the outsiders so-to-speak, like the stripper and its devoted patrons—as I try to root out what really makes people drop so much money on strange women they can’t even afford. And here I am picking this idea apart, in a field of ripe apples, while my wife is probably home wondering where-the-hell-I-am-right-now and why the hell I’m not picking up my phone. But suddenly the banter between Tenderfoot and I picks up again and gradually loosens, as I’m now somehow asking how her menstrual cycle affects business.
“It doesn’t, silly,” she laughs. Her daughter then runs ahead, chasing after some airplane that thunders above. Tenderfoot follows close behind as she picks up her phone. Our conversation is lost. Lawyer and Vince trail not too far off from Tenderfoot. Vince pretends to take photos of apple trees, as he eyes her every moment. And to be honest I’ve never seen Lawyer so timid; he hasn’t said a word in over a half hour.
Also, just to clarify: I’d never ask another female about her monthly cycle, but there’s something so inviting and free of pretension when speaking to Tenderfoot; it’s as if all sexual tension has been disposed of. It’s like she knows me. Or is it that I feel like I know her? Because I’ve already seen her naked, entirely vulnerable, there aren’t walls up that might impede our dialogue. So we just talk: if it’s the NY Yankees, high gas prices, or how all strippers don’t have to be sluts.
And of course our conversation resolves to the topic of money. The reason why Ms. Foot opted for this profession. “You think I like this all the time? I mean it feels good, to be looked at, but sometimes I don’t want to be naked. And you try feeding a four year old and going to college. I’m tired Bruce. I mean I like the money but sometimes I’d just like a different life.” But she makes anywhere from $400 to $700 a shift, and works six shifts a week. We both agree that it’s a lot of money, and when she mentions that she hopes to become a history teacher in a couple of years, I can’t help but ask her how she’s going to take such a significant pay cut—because everyone knows that teachers don’t nearly make what strippers do.
“You have to be strong,” she replies, and then asks if I’d like to go to the diner.
I have to laugh, “Are you paying?”
“Isn’t your friend a lawyer?”
“Exactly, and you’re a stripper.”
“How about I pay for dinner but only if you agree to join me tonight at these clubs?”
“But I don’t know how to write,” she says.
“But you do strip. Plus you can protect me.”
“Protect you from what?” she giggles.
It’s hardly necessary to get into the dark-mystique that surrounds the “strip scene,” so I just make my offer again. She consents and I pay for the apples. Vince and Lawyer will come tonight too.
The diner bill is sixty dollars plus a ten-dollar tip, which is less than what Ms. Foot can drum up in a half hour performing one lap dance. She’s just devoured two cheeseburgers, while slurping the last of a large chocolate milkshake, as her daughter finishes the rest of her fries. Lawyer had a couple of beers, and Vince and I split a tuna sandwich. I shrug off being scammed—it’s almost as if a stripper can’t turn off being a stripper. So I pay the bill and then we drop Tenderfoot’s daughter off at her parent’s house (where they both still live).
“Are you coming in Mommy?” her daughter asks, as they lean out of the car.
“I’ll be home soon. Mommy has to go to the office tonight.”
Tenderfoot’s mother, who looks almost as young, meets them at the door. She appears icy, removed, maybe even disappointed. She takes the young girl’s hand, and then says something rather curt to Tenderfoot (it’s too far away for me to hear exactly what). The door closes.
As we pull out of their driveway, the curtain in the front window suddenly divides, when two fast little hands press up against the glass, a circle of fog clouds the pane.
Our first stop is the club Blush, located on Veterans Memorial Highway in Commack. It’s right off the LIE, in an area zoned as “industrial,” where its doors stay open seven days a week from noon to 4am. Lawyer and Tenderfoot are blathering in the backseat. I have to turn up the radio to blot out their conversation; it sounds like all the other songs I’ve never heard before.
When we reach the spot, Lawyer decides to stay in the car because he has to call his wife—maybe he’s just reeling with guilt. But then, suddenly, empathy overcomes Tenderfoot and she stays with him, “I’ll keep Lawyer company…he shouldn’t be alone.” I wasn’t going to argue but honestly I’m confused and annoyed with this decision; it’s like being a voyeur to a melodrama scripted for the WB. And now Vince appears to waver too, so I have to remind him that fifty feet from our car a room heaves with dancing naked women.
It’s Friday night, the room is framed in a pink glow; it’s thick mostly with men and the rest is occupied by the thirty girls working tonight. The layout is ideal: center-stage two gilded-poles sky toward the ceiling, attached are topless “acrobats,” fiercely undulating, twirling about. I can’t help but wonder if anyone ever falls.
Vince has already found his own way, drifting over to the other side of the room by the extended row of VIP rooms where one goes for a lap dance. From this vantage point, I can’t tell if Vince is smiling or crying. He doesn’t even look like Vince; a place like this can completely unglue a person’s character, as if you’ve just met him today—even if you’ve known this person your whole life. I wonder if I changed walking in here, if we all do, and if that’s what keeps bringing us back. The freedom and anonymity.
The space booms with a four-on-the-floor drum beat, coupled with this sweet, snarky-sounding voice echoing, “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?” An oval-shape bar encloses a stage, which the ladies swing from. The room teems with young colorful thinly-dressed women. One gets the sense that even when you’re not looking at them—they’re still always looking at you. It’s a fantasy world, where men come, “to be someone else,” says one patron, who’s been a regular here for two years now. He’s huddled under a baseball cap, eyes at his mug, burger and basket of fries—dinner.
“What makes you come here?”
He laughs at me, “Come on man. You need to ask? The good food and the titties, man!”
Gnawing at his burger, he then flaunts his wedding band, “I came here after my first divorce. I’m married again and I’m still here! I’m enjoying myself. I can have some private time right?” But then our discussion is unexpectedly abbreviated, when from the shadows approaches, “Joe” the manager, to greet us. He’s young, warm, accommodating, even if he seems slightly over-worked. We’re invited into the back room to chat. I grab Vince and we’re off.
“It’s not a bad job?” I start.
“There’s worse ways of making a living.”
Then I get a text message from Tenderfoot: “Lawyer is outside of the car sobbing hysterically.”
Joe then asks, “What’s the article about?”
I should tell him it’s about strippers on Long Island but again, “I’ll let you know when I find out.”
And as if I never responded, he then implores, “We provide a service here. Where else can you come to a safe place, have a drink, talk to a girl and forget your problems? We run a clean business. There’s cameras everywhere…that’s why we’re still in business. And we have hard-working girls here.”
“Can I chat with some of them?”
“What are you going to ask them?”
Nella Jay is a porn star who happens to dance at Blush too. She’s the only porno actress in the club, “because I would know,” she admits. Gregarious, unguarded, a sprightly brunette, she’s also quite industrious, as she’s participated in over 200 films in her first year of working. Additionally, she’s determined to become a pop star, which she says she’s about to sign a giant record deal. Tomorrow she flies off to California, again, for the entire month to shoot another film, “Just Google me. I’m all over the web.”
“Okay I will. Do you still enjoy…you know ‘doing it?’” I struggle.
“What, making money? Of course! But the sex needs to be damn good for me to feel anything.”
“Do you have a specialty?”
“I do a lot of things,” she beams.
“Do you know Tenderfoot?”
She just stares at me, confused.
Another topless woman approaches us, smiling, lingering behind the bar. Nella Jay says I have to tip her, even if I am just covering a story.
“Put a dollar between her boobs,” she encourages, as if instructing a child.
I scramble for a dollar, and neatly place it into her palm. I’m sweating now. Lawyer calls me, and I can barely hear him: “When are we leaving?” I think he asks.
A few other dancers approach as word spreads that I’m writing an article. They have stage names like Violet, Eve and Sapphire, and each girl has more fervor than the last, and they all want to share their life story. But we have to leave. I get Vince, and on the way out he asks, “Aren’t you sad?”
“Yeah, that we’re leaving.”
Back at the car I see that Lawyer isn’t sad at all. Was the text just a joke? Actually, Lawyer and Tenderfoot (the soon-to-be history teacher) are naturally debating over our US Constitution. Chewing an apple, she’s rifling off esoteric information about Thomas Jefferson. They jaw about this the entire trip to our next stop: The Tender Trap, which is only a few miles away, along E. Jericho Turnpike in Huntington.
We arrive and Ms. Foot suddenly has a “toxic headache.” And now Lawyer is determined his wife will call him back, “She’s not that mad at me.” So they both decide to hang back again. What can I do? Yell at her? I don’t know how to yell. Should I just ask her to pay me back for the cheeseburgers and fries? Vince, in contrast, was deeply moved by the last experience and he briskly walks ahead to the door.
The real pull of The Tender Trap (besides the lurid title) is that it was completely refurbished last year. Lorenzo, a youthful man, who makes pizzas by day, sits behind a desk collecting money, watching the surveillance screens. “I make sure no dicks get whipped out. Or else they’re out of here. So do you want to take a look around now?”
The staff is unusually pleasant here, the mix of women are even kinder. The impression is informal; there’s no expectation to open your wallet but there’s certainly an invitation to a “good time.” Everything is new and showered in a cool-blue motif. The stage, a focal point behind the bar, is propped up six feet high in front of a giant mirror. The men at the bar all appear sedated, not drunk though. One man, doffing a fancy sports jacket and bright blue tie, who goes by the name “Frankie,” piles down next to me, gripping a gin and tonic, after just finishing his second, “sweet-ass lap dance,” which cost him another 100 dollars; he’s a banker who’s been, “king of these clubs for ten years.”
“Just a lap dance?” I inquire.
“Ha! If you’re looking to get the ol’ hand job amigo, you can—just not here. You can get your balls licked too. There are a few places for that.”
“Just ask around. They’re all over the island. Trust me.”
“What about the cops?”
“Just ask around.”
“Okay. I will.”
“But I say…if you’ve got the extra dough…then go for the full-service. It’s pure pleasure, amigo.”
Not that there is any shortage of pleasure here at The Tender Trap, as most men seem to be quite satisfied, glowing, as they watch the dancers rotate the stage song after song, each girl fashioning her own style of turning the pole. And it’s important to note that all of the ladies have that same confident and penetrating look that has you believing, “You’re the only one.” And yes my wife can summon up that same look, but these women are experts and they can do it on command. And they’re strangers, which somehow makes it more potent.
Yet some of these ladies are still frightened by Vince’s camera, and ask that we use caution while snapping pictures. We oblige when “Princess” approaches. She’s a fresh face here: “We’re like birds here. We float from place to place. It’s not easy. You have people stare at you all day. I only started doing this when I was young because I was fucking crazy then and needed the money.
But men are weird…they just want to give you money.” Fifty-three years old, with all fourteen of her cats tattooed to her body, she’s a veteran of the business, referring to the closing of Long Island Café, another gentleman’s club on Long Island. She then mentions that some of the other clubs will soon fall too.
Princess then alludes to a golden era when the US economy was robust. “But even still…I do better here now than at my other job as a graphic design artist.”
My phone buzzes in my pocket; it’s my wife and I don’t pick up. This place just makes me feel guilty, as if everything I do here is somehow terribly wrong.
I then try to pick up the thread of my conversation with Princess and so I tell her that my friend Tenderfoot just spoke about these hard financial times.
“It’s Tender Trap not Tender Foot,” she corrects me.
I jump to, “How do you keep it up after all these years?”
“Because I still look good, dammit!” she lifts up her shirt, revealing herself.
Am I supposed to give her a dollar? The phone rings; it’s Tenderfoot, again.
“Bruce? You there? Lawyer went home. And I want to go home too.”
“Haven’t you seen enough breasts already?”
“What does that even mean?”
“Come on you’re all the same. Men are men.” I’m insulted.
“I don’t know what that means. I’m writing an article here.”
“Then make sure you write that down too. So they’ll know what your article is about. Are you really that naïve? Or is everything you do just an act?”
“I’m not sure what you mean by that.”
“I’m talking about tits Bruce. Tits! Men and tits!”
“Okay. I’ll remember to put that into the article.”
We have to leave, again. I say goodbye to Princess but run off without thanking the rest of the staff. Vince is the midst of getting his first lap dance, which unfortunately has to be cut short.
“Let’s go. We’re leaving,” I jolt his hand to pull him up.
“What the hell are you doing? I paid for this.”
“I’ll pay you back.”
Vince looks like he’s about to break out into hives.
A bouncer charges forth to make sure everything is okay. Everything is okay, and so we’re off.
Outside Tenderfoot leans against the car. She’s smoking a cigarette, holding a tissue to what looks like a bloody nose. I want to yell at her but don’t know how to. I hardly even know her.
“What happened to your nose?”
“Your friend’s wife owns him,” she says smugly.
“You slept with him, didn’t you?”
She doesn’t respond but it’s obvious something happened between them.
“Did he take a taxi?”
“Nope. He’s walking along the highway,” she blows a halo of smoke into the parking lot lights.
It feels like a brilliant nightmare.
“You think men are the same. You’re all the same too.” I instantly regret saying that. What was the point? The situation was helpless from the start. “Everybody get in the car.”
Vince dials Lawyer and we discover he’s nearly home, a cab got him along the side of the road. We’re on our way home too—no one claims a word the whole way. The sky is starless, my mouth dry. I want to call my wife but don’t.
When we drop off Tenderfoot, I pointlessly thank her and in return she offers a muted goodbye. She and her apples just disappear into her parents’ house for that last time. I want to know exactly what happened between her and Lawyer, but I’m not going to ask. I’m just worn down by it all. The experience of fantasy can be more exhausting than real life. I’d honestly rather be at home or at work or anything else that involves the drab details of ordinary life. And if I really need to see her again I know where to find her. I also know that I probably won’t go back there for another visit—it’s as if all of this wasn’t real, as if she never actually existed. I was duped into believing that we were friends. She might as well have been some fictional character, somebody I simply made up.
“Now I am sad, Vince.”
But Vince is fast asleep in the passenger seat.
A few days scrape by when Vince rings to see if we’re going to our final destination: Billy Dean’s in Bellmore. At this point, I never want to see another naked woman again. I’m bored by breasts and the idea of women emptying my pockets. Maybe I’m naïve to think that there’s more to this story than meets the eye; it can’t just be dancing women trying to swindle you out of a buck. I want to find a story¸ a story that opens up the truth to this scene. So I go, and give it one more try.
Tucked into the corner of a shopping strip, next to a Chinese restaurant and a Dunkin Donuts, Billy Dean’s has been operative for twelve years, priding itself on an exclusive hot oil wrestling match, which begs for audience participation. It’s the implicit thrill of watching half-naked women beat the hell out of each other as they roll around in buckets of grease! The good life, I suppose. But unfortunately, we stop in on a night when this isn’t happening. However, the moment we arrive we’re still cordially welcomed by Billy Dean himself.
Mr. Dean, with a big smile and a tiny mustache, is a former male stripper, who still exudes that same casual confidence that seems to be a prerequisite of the profession.
“We do good business here: bachelor parties, drink specials, special events. We want people to feel good and safe here. That’s why they come back.”
And a few of these regulars now mince at the bar with some lightly-laced girls. The room thrills with a dark glow; it’s clean and spacious with two VIP lap dance rooms, when all of sudden a big grizzly man in a t-shirt and torn jeans rolls out from behind the curtain, expressionless. And then out comes the girl, one hand covering her chest, as the other levels a few bills into the bouncer’s hand.
I run over to the burly gentleman to ask if he had a good time.
“Go somewhere else you freak.”
I thank him for the suggestion and the insight but I don’t think he hears me.
At the front room, on a stage that nearly spans the length of the space, two young ladies skillfully wind a pole at either end, while belting out the words of a pop song I don’t recognize. One of these dancers, Holly, a cheerful brunette who’s been working here, “for a while,” puts her top back on and climbs off stage to talk. She reminds me of Tenderfoot, and all the other dancers I’ve encountered along the way. Perhaps it’s because she’s so at ease with herself? This confidence is beauty objectified, but I can’t tell if this comfort is real or just another part of the illusion being constructed. I want to believe everything she’s saying but I can’t. Tenderfoot has obliterated my ability to even slightly trust any dancer. I pinch myself, when suddenly Holly starts to unravel pictures from her digital camera; it’s a girls’ softball team, and she’s the coach.
“Does your team know you dance?”
“Are you kidding?” she giggles.
“So you dance, but you can’t be proud of it?”
“I like to dance for myself.”
“But isn’t it difficult to keep up this double life? Doesn’t it get old after a while?”
“It hasn’t yet. It’s fun!”
“I see. So do you plan on doing this forever?”
“No. Not forever. I know that.” She itches her bikini top, a boob elbows outward.
“What’s next then?”
“I’m going to be a firefighter,” she smiles.
I can’t resist, “Well, you’ll definitely have a lot of experience sliding down that pole.”
She explodes with laughter, “I never thought of that!”
When she regains her reality, I ask her, “Wait, do you know where Vince went?”
Gently, she points toward the far end of the stage where Vince is contorted into an almost impossible position. He’s trying to capture the perfect shot of some dancer: a twisted blur about that gilded bar.
I turn back to Holly. I want to ask her if she’d like to meet me tomorrow at the diner. But what’s the point? I don’t want to pay another dollar to anyone. And here I thought there was more to this scene than the illusion, well-known and well-prescribed. I wanted there to be more, either in defense of it or in defiance of the clichés, but when I tried to pull back the curtain, all that was there was money, and more money and the empty fantasy of sex and a good time, and so many people trying desperately to hang on to their dear fragile lives. But what makes me all that different? Why does every one of us have this constant need to be appreciated and loved by all? Are we all just that afraid that we’re going to die one day and be forgotten forever? I don’t know—that idea seems too simple, too banal. I look at Holly again but it’s time to go home.